More than you bargained for at the water cooler

So it’s mid-morning on Friday and I’m making a cup of tea. Phath, our Operations Manager comes over to get a drink. “How’s progress?” I ask him casually.

What do you mean, ‘progress’?” he says with his characteristic wry smile.

“Well you know. In your life.”

“Well, I used to be a simple farmer and now I am in-charge of operations here, so I’d say that it’s pretty good!” Wow, that’s a perspective I wasn’t expecting and sends a seismic wave through me as I contemplate my frustrations of the morning.

“We used to get water to drink from the stream and now I can get it from the cooler. We were all fascinated by the idea of smoking when I was young and we used to run after the motorbikes to inhale the smoke from the exhaust. That was still Pol Pot’s time in the early nineties when UNTAC [United Nations Transit Authority for Cambodia] was moving about the country”. UNTAC was a peace keeping force sent into Cambodia following the 1991 Paris Peace Accord. They were in the country for a couple of years and organised the first elections post Khmer Rouge in 1993. The Khmer Rouge were only removed from the ballot paper at the last moment.

Phath comes from a rural area in the west of Cambodia that was one of the Khmer Rouge’s final strongholds, close to where Pol Pot died in 1998. He still lives there today, typically coming to Siem Reap in the week where he rents a small room, going back home to his wife and children at the weekend.

“When the trucks full of guns used to drive past, we would run over and help push them through the sand. We used to ty to hang on once the trucks got going, but the soldiers fired their rifles at us to make us let go.”

“What, they shot some of you?”

“No no, they just shot next to us to scare us.” I was transported to some place I might have seen in a film but had no first hand knowledge of. Blazing sun and vintage kaki trucks making the growl of struggling diesel engines bouncing along sandy pathways through vivid green rice fields. The shrill, excited voices from a throng of boys, punctuated by a rifle shot, raising the pitch of the cacophony of sound, mingles with the sound of the trucks in the heavy air.

“Of course, the Khmer Rouge was still active at that time near you. Wasn’t it very dangerous for you?” I asked naively.

“It was just normal. The danger came from the land mines. There were a lot of them in the fields where we used to look after the cows and some of my friends died or became disabled as a consequence of what they found. It seemed that that was just how it was, but life is much better now!”

My head was having difficulty processing this perspective. “Perhaps you would do a podcast for us Phath because what you say puts it all into perspective in a way that I find so difficult given what I think of as normal and the privilege I have had in my own life. Thank you for sharing that with me!”

A final stir of his coffee and another wry smile as he walks down the corridor back to his desk.

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